Thursday, January 13, 2011


Fridays are always slow in the courthouse, but today is downright desolate in anticipation of an icy three day weekend in January. Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. When I arrive at the empty courtroom, I shake off the subzero chill and check the docket to find only two cases. One case is a probation violation hearing set for a guy who hasn’t shown up to his probation officer in months. In fact, he never went to the probation office at all, not even a first time. There is exactly no chance that this guy will show up for the scheduled hearing. Why would he? He knows he’d go to jail. He hasn’t responded to his probation officer’s warning letters, so why would he heed a summons to see the judge? He is now in “those fuckers’ll have to find me” mode. Many of my clients find themselves living like this, either before or after I meet them. On the lamb.

The other case is a competency hearing. A month ago, the client was sent to Cleveland’s mental hospital to determine if he was competent to stand trial. I have never met him. Another public defender was here when the competency referral was made. I skim the psychiatrist’s report and find that, despite some mental limitations, Mr. Azzolina is (a) capable of appreciating the nature of the proceedings against him, and is (b) capable of assisting his lawyer in preparing a defense.

These reports are often wrong. I once met a client who was convinced that he had a dead son, buried in his backyard, who had been named after me. Despite his genuine concern that he was rapidly loosing the use of his individual body parts – eyes, fingers, toes – the psych clinic gave him a clean bill of health and deemed him ready for trial. The report contained nothing about his active, psychotic delusions. After I called the doctor out on his recommendations, he reevaluated the guy and sheepishly told me I was right and that he had missed it.

I review the court file on Mr. Azzolina. He is charged with criminal activity on school property, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. He is seventy years old. He has been held for the past two months: first, in city jail for a few days, then in the Cleveland workhouse for a few weeks, then, at the mental hospital for a month and a half after concerns about his competency arose, and now, another few days back at the city jail. According to the probable cause statement in the court file, the allegations stem from an incident in the schoolyard behind Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, across the street from Mr. Azzolina’s home. There, he allegedly berated some little black girls playing after school and spit at their parents when they arrived to pick up the girls. This is a crime, especially when foul language and threats are used. Basically, my client is charged with being a bigoted, grumpy old man.

Seventy-year-olds rarely get arrested for things, but when the do, the possibility of jail terrifies them to the point of incoherence. They may also be blind without glasses, deaf without a hearing aid, and physically disabled without a cane. Old folks are special needs cases. You must not make any assumptions about what they know or don’t know, what they can or cannot comprehend. Each conversation is a step-by-step process, and you may have to retrace your steps without seeming frustrated. You need to gain their confidence while gauging their abilities. I am thinking about this as I ask the deputy to key me into the holding cell where I will meet Mr. Azzolina.

In the low, yellow light, a little man shuffles towards me. He’s shy of five feet tall, wearing a green sweatsuit and tennis shoes with no laces. He is bald, but for a few wisps at his temples. He has enormous nostrils filled with peppered hair that matches his eyebrows. “Who are you?” he looks up at me, his hands stretched out, steadying himself like he’s walking a tightrope.
“I’m Bloomsday. I’m your new lawyer. I’m here to try to get you out of jail today.” I reach out to shake his hand and he clasps both of his around mine.
“Thank you! Thanks, Mr. Bloomsday! They got me on a trespassin’ but I been locked up long enough! I wanna get outta here, already…” He reassumes the tightrope walker posture, reaching out for balance. I notice he still has his teeth, which means that he’s taken care of himself in this respect.
“Mr. Azzolina, I need to talk with you about a couple of things, first. I need to get clear about a couple of things before we talk to the judge.”
“Oh, yeah, sure…whaddayya need to know?”
“Well, they sent you out to the mental hospital to see if you were competent to stand trial. That means that, at some point, someone thought that you were having a tough time understanding what was going on, or that you might not be able to help a lawyer with you case.”
“Nah! All’s I know is it was mistaken identity! I didn’t do anything and then they come and arrest me…”
“Well, we’ll talk about your case in a few minutes, but first I need to see how you’re doing. I need to make sure you understand what’s going on here. The judge is going to want to make sure you are O.K., you know, that you’re O.K. in the head. Now, you’ve been charged with a couple of things. The most serious charge is something called criminal activity on school property—“
“Nah! It wasn’t nothing like that! I was just there, on the playground in my neighborhood, it was way after school was over. Nobody there but me. I took first communion at that church, Holy Rosary! I was three years old! Father Peligrino is a friend of mine! I was an altar boy there! And Sister Rose, too. She knows me!”
I must redirect. “We’ll talk about that later, but I need you to tell me that you understand the charges against you. I’m not asking if you did it or not. I just want to make sure you understand the charges.”
“Oh. Yes. Criminal activity on school property. And trespassin’.
“Yes. There’s a third charge, disorderly conduct, but don’t worry about that right now. So, you understand the charges. You should know that criminal activity on school property is a misdemeanor of the first degree, which means that a judge could keep someone in jail for six months on a charge like that…”
He looks predictably horrified.
“…but I don’t think that will happen here. I’m just telling you that the maximum penalty could be up to six months. As your lawyer, I need to tell you about all possibilities, even the worst-case scenario, but I don’t think he’ll keep you in jail for six months. In fact, I think I can get you out today if you play your cards right. Know what I mean?”
“Oh, O.K., I got it. Yeah.” He exhales a couple of times and seems winded, like he’s just jogged a mile in his green sweat suit and sneakers sans laces. He leans forward with his hands on his thighs.
“Mr. Azzolina, are you feeling O.K.? Do you need to sit down?”
“Nah. I’m fine. Just restin’.” He stands upright, sniffs and faces me, still winded.
“So now what do we do?”
“Well, we first have to show the judge that you understand the proceedings against you and that you can work with me on defending you. Once we do that, then you’re going to have to make a choice: you can either set this case for a trial or I can try to work out a plea where you get out as long as you promise to stay away from the school yard for a while.”
His hands are now cupped behind his ears as I talk, funneling my words into his ears filled with wiry hairs that match his nose and eyebrows. “I just wanna get this done with! I’m tired of this!” “I know, Mr. Azzolina, but you’ve got to believe me when I tell you that, first things first, we gotta show the judge that you’re clear-headed and can help me with your case. We don’t want him to think you’re some loose cannon who doesn’t know what’s going on or how to behave in the courtroom. Right? Because then he might believe that you are exactly the kind of guy who would do what you’re charged with. You know?”
A light flickers on above his liverspotted head. “Oh, yeah, I got ya!” He grins, and winks and gives an O.K. sign. “You’re on my side, Bloomsday! I like that!”

I ramble on about his constitutional rights and I watch him watching my lips. I lose him on the right against self-incrimination, and he interrupts me to protest his innocence. “I believe you when you tell me you didn’t do what they say, but we’re not talking about that right now. Right now, I’m just telling you what I tell all of my clients. These are your constitutional rights if you chose to have a trial, and I need to know that you understand them. The judge might quiz you on whether you know your rights! So, please, Mr. Azzolina, just listen carefully for a few more minutes. I have a lot I need to tell you before you tell me anything. I just want you to understand what’s going on.”
“Oh, all right. You look like you know what you’re doin’, Mr. Bloomsday.” His crooked hairy-knuckled finger touches my chest.
“Well, I may not have all the answers, Mr. Azzolina, and any lawyer who promises you he’ll win is lying. But I can promise you that I’ll fight for you as hard as I can. O.K.? But you’re going to have to pay attention to what I’m saying and follow my lead. O.K.?”
“That’s really good, Mr. Bloomsday. Thanks. Thanks!” He nods hard and almost tips over. He steadies himself again. He must be missing a cane.
“All right. How do you make a living?”
“I’m retired. I got two checks waitin’ for me. My nephew, Danny, he’s got ‘em. He’s a barber.”
“And what did you do for a living?”
“I was a roofer most of my life, but I also managed a couple a singers.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Yeah, I had a guy named Benny Giamatti. He was a crooner. Had a hit in ’67.” He coughs and steadies himself.
“Now, are you on any medications?”
“How’s your health. You doing O.K.?”
“Ah, I can’t complain. I ain’t smoked in two months. I miss cigarettes. I smoke Virginia Slims.”
“Now, where do you live?”
“On East 120th. Right by Holy Rosary. I grew up there.”
“Who lives there?”
Just me, now. It’s an up down. I live down. The guy who used to live up moved out, so there’s no one there. My nephew Danny is picking up my mail. He’s a barber.”
“All right. If I get you out of jail today, that’s where you’ll go?”
“O.K. Now, if we want the judge to let you out, we have to convince him that, while this case is going on, you won’t go to Holy Rosary—“
“I won’t go anywhere near that place. I will walk around the block to avoid it if I have to, I swear…and I’m a Catholic!”
“Well, you don’t have to convince me. It’s the judge we have to convince.”

The judge arrives at 10:30. Moments later, the deputy brings Mr. Azzolina from the holding cell into the courtroom. I point to the floor at the spot next to me at the podium where I want him to stand, and he hurries to my side. The judge and I discuss the issue of competency. I explain that I agree with the doctor’s conclusions. I believe that my client is competent. “If the court accepts this finding, then I’d ask for a personal bond so that Mr. Azzolina can come to my office and talk over his case thoroughly in a less-restrictive setting. I have admonished Mr. Azzolina that, if this court is to consider a personal bond, he must have no contact with anyone from Holy Rosary during the pendency of this matter, or he will be jailed again and charged with contempt.” As I say these words I size up the constitutional magnitude of agreeing that my client stay away from this church. If he goes to confess his sins, he will be in contempt of court.

“Does he know how cold it is outside, Mr. Bloomsday? He doesn’t have a coat. It’s the middle of January and it’s a couple of degrees above zero.”
“I got three dollars in my shoe, Judge!” Mr. Azzolina blurts. “I can take the bus.”
My hand reflexively touches his shoulder, a subtle cue to let me do the talking. “Judge, I will personally ensure that he gets home safely.”
“It’s too cold for him to wait for the bus…”
“I understand that, Judge. He will not wait for a bus. I will personally make sure he gets home. I will drive him, I will call a cab, I will contact his nephew…a barber here in town…” I am brainstorming on the record. As I speak, I realize that my low coolant and temperature indicator lights are coming on each time I drive my beater. I had trouble turning it over that morning. I have a leak, somewhere. “I will watch him enter his home.” I don’t trust my own car.
The judge writes for a few minutes. Or is he doodling?
“I’m ordering that he not be released unless it is into your custody, and that you arrange to get him home.”
“Yes, your honor.” I have to hatch a plan.

The judge leaves the bench and Mr. Azzolina turns to me. “What does that mean?”
“It means that you get to go home. It’s cold out and you’re seventy years old and you don’t have a coat, so Mr. Azzolina, you and I are going for a ride together, and I’m gonna make sure you get home safely.”
He is processed out by the deputies, and then handed off to me. We take the elevator off the fourteenth floor, me in a blue suit and winter-lined trench coat; he, the tiny man in a green sweat suit. As we step in the elevator, I note the presence of four other suits, affluent civil practitioners.
Mr. Azzolina breaks the elevator silence. “Boy, I haven’t had a good cup of coffee in months,” his fingers rub his mouth, as if he’s salivating for coffee. “I can’t wait to get some good hot coffee.” He’s elated. He claps his hands a couple of times and bounces, the descending elevator sways. “Boy, oh boy…”
“There’s a coffee shop on the fourth floor here. Let’s stop and get some.” I feel the observant silence of the suits behind us. I look back and nod, respectfully. I catch the eyes of one, and he looks away. “There’s a blind man’s stand. A coffee shop run by the blind on the fourth floor.”
“Oh, boy oh boy!” That sounds great, Mr. Bloomsday.” He pauses. “Blind people, Huh? Some people really got it tough…”
When we get to the coffee stand, I order a couple cups. I give two bucks and I pour the half-decent swill into two large paper cups. “Cream?”
“Hi-ho! Yeah!”
“And do you take sugar?”
I offer him a lid after he stirs the sugar in, but he rejects it. “I like to drink it with a straw!” He demonstrates, and his gray stubbled cheeks cave in as he sucks the pale coffee through a straw.
As I prepare my own coffee, I notice him struggling with his tennis shoe, and I ask if I can help. “I gotta give to the blind,” he says. “I got three dollars…”
“No, no, that’s O.K.” I say, looking nervously at the blind guy wearing one of his roller coaster enthusiast T-shirts. “I already paid for the coffee.”
We sit near a forth floor window view of the frozen concrete tundra over the courthouse atrium. There are huge, human-sized icicles streaming down the corners of the shabbily designed twenty-three story dump. They cascade into frozen drifts of snow. Their weight must be staggering. I think about the atrium beneath them. Mr. Azzolina keeps showing me his progress on drinking his coffee with a straw. “See?” he tilts his cup toward me. “This is great coffee! I’m almost done!”
“You don’t have to hurry, though. Take your time. You just got out of jail, you can relax.” I’ve programmed a cab company number into my cell phone, though I’ve never needed to use it. My life in Cleveland has been cab free, until today.

I must execute our departure from the courthouse safely and smoothly. This goal is impeded by the dangerous cold outside and absurd security measures put in place after 9-11: vast portions of the first level are cordoned off with police ribbons to herd people through metal detectors and there are hastily stamped signs that read NO WAITING IN LOBBY.
As I stand with Mr. Azzolina, looking out at the cold, I notice a deputy approaching.
“Sir, you can’t wait here.”
“I’m this guy’s lawyer, he seventy years old, he’s been locked up for two months, he has no coat, and I have to stay with him while we wait for a cab. This cold is dangerous. I just called a cab and it should be here in a few minutes. Can’t he just wait here for a minute?
“Sir, it’s out of my hands.”
I spot a small corner of the lobby not subject to martial law that still offers a vantage point to the street. Near the George Segal statues of doleful, white plaster people waiting for eternity.
I tell Mr. Azzolina to wait and watch for my signal.

I head outside and stand by the Segal statues, blasted by the iciness in the air. Moment’s later, I see the cab approaching and motion for him to join me outside. He will have to take about a hundred hobbled paces between the courthouse door and the cab in his sweat suit. It is eight degrees outside. I reach the cab first, crouch in and inform the cabbie: “This old-timer coming down the steps without a coat on, we’re waiting for him. I need to get him home without freezing to death.”
Mr. Azzolina arrives at the cab, out of breath, snot dripping from his cavernous nostrils. He climbs in, closes the door and claps his hands with joy, relief and success. “Whoo!” he shouts. “I’m goin’ home!” Cough!
I tell the cabbie the general destination, and as we take off, Mr. Azzolina begins a wet, phlegmmy hacking fit. I see some of the phlegm hit the back seat in front of him and drip to the cab floor. He wipes another large, coffee colored glob on his sweat suit sleeve. I have to try not to gag.
Thankfully, he rolls down the window and lets out a huge hocker. “Sorry about that. I just can’t get rid of this cough!” He struggles to speak, so I start talking about the scenery.
“There’s the new Browns stadium,” I say
“Oh, yeah. I never seen that before. It’s so big!” Wheezing.
“…and there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You ever been there?”
“No,” he’s recovering. “Oh, boy, [cough] I know rock and roll. I was in the business when it began! All the Italian singers. Bobby Darin. He died. Al Marino, [sic] He’s in The Godfather. Giamatti was my boy, though. He got hit by the three bears behind The Sportsman Bar and Grill, though. He owed a cocaine debt. He was a good singer, though. Peggy Lee, I have all her records." He starts to sing, “
Is that all there is? Iiiiiis that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break all the rules and…” he trails off.

During the cab ride, I call his nephew, the barber, to let him know that Uncle Paul is out of jail. “Is that a good thing?” he asks.
Mr. Azzolina asks to speak with him. I hand my cell phone to this still-hacking seventy year old. The talk about how the nephew should pick him up on Monday morning so that he can cash his social security checks.
I interrupt. “Monday is a holiday. Banks are closed,” I say.
“Oh, my lawyer says banks are closed on Monday. Let’s make it Tuesday.”

Twenty minutes later, we’re near his home but he’s a little lost. We drive around looking for landmarks. “Oh yeah! Popeye’s Chicken. That’s good chicken! A few blocks later, “Oh, and there’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lotsa good chicken around here…Oh, wait! This is close! Take a left here.” The cabbie obliges.

We’ve entered Little Italy through a back route I’ve never known before. There is Holy Rosary church, a few blocks from the house where he stops. “This is it! There’s my house!” The cab stops and he gets out. I remind him to stay away from the church and to keep to himself and to call me when he gets settled in. He walks up to the front door, checks his mail, and opens the front door without a key. His front door has been unlocked for the past two months. He waives and closes the door behind him.

On the cab ride back downtown, the cabbie, a black guy in his fifties asks me, “Hey, you told that guy that Monday is a holiday. What holiday is that?”
“It’s Martin Luther King Day,” I say.
“Oh.” He doesn’t say anything else.

I ask him to drop me off at the back entrance of my office. I tip five on a thirty dollar fare. When I get out, I see my boss, the legendary poverty lawyer, C. Lyonel Jones, standing in the second floor window of the smoking lounge, looking down, watching me exit a cab at noon. This must strike him as odd or suspicious, since the courthouse is only a block away. A sexual rendezvous or morning bender during business hours? I ignore him; otherwise I’ll have to explain myself, and that is something that I prefer not to do.